Back in 2013, I watched a film called The Place Beyond The Pines. I knew nearly nothing about it, beyond the fact that it was a multi-generational crime story starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper. The film took me by surprise, and I was so dazzled by the gritty, pure audacity of the storytelling and filmmaking that I placed it on my list of the best films of the year. This was my first exposure to director Derek Cianfrance, the filmmaker behind The Light Between Oceans, which debuted in theaters yesterday. With his breakout feature Blue Valentine and his follow-up stunner Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance established himself as one of the most emotional, thrilling new voices in the industry. After a three-year hiatus, the beloved director is returning with a 1920s-set drama anchored by two terrific performances from Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander.
The Light Between Oceans is arriving in that weird ground between summer and Oscar season, where studios dump both schlocky action films and would-be awards players. This one is coming in with very little momentum, despite a play at the Venice Film Festival, and the pedigree of the cast and crew. And after watching the film, it's understandable- Light Between Oceans isn't a bad film, per say, but it's a middle-of-the-road kinda flick that doesn't elicit much emotion other than disappointment. It features all of Cianfrance's filmmaking prowess without the storytelling mastery, a move that ends up costing the film big time. Things start off quite magnificently, but as the narrative turns to absurdity, overwrought melodrama, and a seemingly endless array of situational moral quandaries, The Light Between Oceans turns to a sentimental slog that undermines its brilliant elements.
After World War I, where he saw all kinds of unimaginable horrors, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) just wants to get away from people for a while. He signs up to be a lighthouse keeper on an island off the coast of Australia, and spends a good amount of time taking in the subtle, quiet beauty of his secluded life. He only receives intermittent visits from civilizations, rarely leaving the lighthouse. But one day, he meets the beautiful Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), who he almost immediately falls in love with. They have a sweet and tender romance, get married, and move to the island together. However, problems begin to occur during their quest to start a family. Isabel suffers two horrendous miscarriages, leaving her depressed and discouraged.
But one day, something strange happens. A boat washes ashore, and inside lies a man and a baby. The man is dead when Tom and Isabel find him, but the baby is still alive and well. Typically, Tom would report that a baby washed ashore. But as his grieving wife begs him to keep the young child on the island, Tom decides to do so against his better judgment. And so, the couple create an elaborate lie, pretending that this child is theirs and fooling everybody in town for years. Then one day, something changes. In the local graveyard, Tom sees a woman crying in front of a grave. The woman is Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), and the grave belongs to her husband and child, both of whom were lost at sea. Suddenly, Tom realizes the unfortunate truth- Hannah is their girl's mother. The revelation initiates a morally questionably situation that sends everyone's life spiraling out of control.
The first act of The Light Between Oceans is truly excellent. Subtle, breathtakingly beautiful, and well-acted across the board. For the first 45 minutes or so, Cianfrance's film is based on atmosphere, mood, sound, and feeling. As the camera circles around the island (accompanied by the rich cinematography of Adam Arkapaw), Alexandre Desplat's score swoons in the background, giving a soothing emotional underpinning to the love story between the sublimely stoic Fassbender and the gorgeous and charming Vikander. Despite a bit of stodginess, there's a real sweeping sense of romance in the first section of this movie. Cianfrance finds himself at the height of his powers, and I loved his natural approach to the story. None of the chemistry between the two leads feels faked, and that leads to some intimate moments that are sweet, electric, and stunning in equal measure.
Honestly, you could probably walk out once the real narrative meat of the story starts. At that point, you've seen pretty much all of the good parts. From the point that the baby enters the narrative of The Light Between Oceans, the movie begins a slow and steady path towards self-destruction. Frankly, it's incredibly disheartening to watch as such a promising film crumbles to pieces, which is exactly what happens here. The tender, beautiful romantic stuff is great, but the story in The Light Between Oceans is a real bore. Cianfrance wants to make you think about the situation that Isabel and Tom are in, and imagine what you would do in the same scenario. And on the surface, it's kind of a fascinating question. But when you're pushing the audience so hard and so frequently, the morality of it all is lost.
The result of Cianfrance's approach is a lot of miserable doom and gloom, which is frustrating and annoying to no end. For this story, it's not enough to have one dilemma for the characters to face- there needs to be thousands of them, all in quick succession. Loyalties between people are tested and everybody just starts acting ridiculously. Isabel is someone with severe emotional trauma who likely has a mental disorder, and the fact that the movie borderlines on condoning her behavior was a tad absurd to me. Tom is sympathetic at first, but he makes some very stupid choices as well, ones that made me dislike his character more and more. And even Rachel Weisz's Hannah emerges as unlikable, and although she has more emotional grounds to hate Tom and Isabel, there are some moments where her character is downright cruel.
All of this awfulness culminates in a final chapter that is catastrophic, bereft of any sincerity and filled with a hokey sentimentality that feels like it's straight out of a different movie. The final chapter provides no emotional satisfaction for the audience, and to be quite honest, there's a twist right at the beginning of the finale that lost me completely. My eyes rolled to the back of my head, and the jarring choices that followed didn't do any the film any good. The final epilogue that takes place in the 1950s is also awful and unnecessary, an absolutely baffling choice by Cianfrance. It's hard for me to judge how much of this is his doing, and how much can be chalked up to the source material from M.L. Stedman, but as the end credits roll with Isabelle and Tom hovering on clouds in the background, I dare any audience member not to laugh.
Despite its brilliant, gorgeously rendered start, The Light Between Oceans quickly finds itself with nowhere to go, stuck with a story that just does not work. Maybe the fact that Cianfrance's film made me dislike all of the characters so much shows its effectiveness, but I found that it diminished the emotional impact of the story. When your main characters are damaged sociopaths with no real remorse for their behavior, your Nicholas Sparks ending falls apart. Fassbender, Vikander, and Weisz (even in a much smaller role than I anticipated) are powerful and superb, Cianfrance has a keen directorial eye, and the production values are astounding. But with an exhausting story, some major script issues, and a misfire of a conclusion, The Light Between Oceans is a big letdown.
THE FINAL GRADE: C (5.8/10)
Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo